Feature: In Defence of Super Mario Sunshine

Do or don't look back into the sun

Ten years ago today, on 26th August 2002, GameCube title Super Mario Sunshine was released in North America to an abundance of critical acclaim, with relatively muted murmuring that it was an unworthy follow-up to Super Mario 64. Gradually over the past decade opinions have grown more divided and gamers have become increasingly vocal about the game’s shortcomings or strengths. Therefore, just as Mario started his GameCube adventure as a convicted vandal, Super Mario Sunshine has perhaps become tarred with a magic graffiti brush, labelling it as a villain of Super Mario games.

However, we believe that its ten year anniversary is a time to celebrate, so armed with Professor E. Gadd’s FLUDD we aim to wash away any dirt that has been flung at this game. It’s our intention to remember its magic and give it another chance to ‘Shine’, or if you are a Japanese reader of Nintendo Life, ‘Shine Get!’ Below is a list of what are often considered to be negative attributes of this title: as we defend Sunshine the occasional spoiler may be discussed, so be warned.

We are not blind to Super Mario Sunshine’s failings; we accept that it’s not perfect. In enclosed areas like the hotel lobby on Sirena Beach the camera feels restrictive, particularly as you have to squirt ghosts to create disappearing platforms, although expansive open environments are more common than the claustrophobic hotel. We admit that its camera can be cumbersome and cause frustration, but this finicky camera is also a result of FLUDD’s innovative gameplay additions to the 3D platformer genre. A standout PAL launch title for the original PlayStation was a first-person platform game called Jumping Flash!, which added a sense of verticality to 3D game worlds as Robbit would leap high into the air to navigate upward to tall platform structures. The skill was in the player aiming Robbit’s shadow in the first-person viewpoint, to determine where they would land.

Super Mario Sunshine incorporates similar design in many of its game areas; Mario is repeatedly tasked with climbing huge vertiginous structures and environments, whether with the rocket nozzle power-up or by floating between platforms using the hover nozzle. Therefore, he’s able to cover far greater distances than the jump trajectory of a traditional platform character and the camera struggles to keep up. The player has a certain amount of control with the C-Stick, they can pull the camera far back to a top-down viewpoint, or zoom it closer in, but it’s challenging to position it to judge narrow landing points.

Super Mario Galaxy addressed problems like this with spherical areas, on which Mario could cling to the surface with a gravitational pull. However, Super Mario Sunshine conveys a sense of beauty when ascending Noki Bay to uncork a waterfall and a feeling of empowerment after conquering the skies of Bianca Hills, by rocketing to collect red coins scattered around a lake. Your patience may be tested as you fall repeatedly off precarious metal girders, for example while searching for a caged Shine Sprite in Ricco Harbor, but it also feels refreshing to explore areas at such a height.

Although rolling a watermelon past fruit-hating Cataquacks to deliver for a festival is too fussy to be fun, it’s the classic platforming areas where Shadow Mario robs you of FLUDD which are often criticised for being overly difficult. These sections deliver an old-school challenge, orchestrated by a chirpy rendition of the original Super Mario Bros. theme, as they are devoid of checkpoints and are surrounded by instant death pits. It’s the player’s skill at moves like side-somersaults and wall-kicks, or in levels like the ‘The Shell’s Secret’ a combination of both, which determine how much you enjoy these sections. Many of these levels have hidden 1-Up mushrooms to ease your pain and they evoke a satisfying sense of relief once they are completed.

In Super Mario Sunshine the player often has the option of attempting a new episode on a different level when they are stuck, although the difficulty curve feels inconsistent as a challenging stage may be followed by an easy level and vice versa. You develop skills as you master the dynamics of FLUDD, so something as simple as lightly pressing the R Trigger while running, to take advantage of the shoulder button’s analogue functionality, is invaluable when spraying pathways of gloop, or soaking a giant electric Manta ray. This technique is also useful for chasing down Shadow Mario, especially as you must conquer his appearance in the seventh episode of all seven main levels to unlock Bowser’s hideout in Corona Mountain. This is also an example of how becoming proficient with the controls can make challenging stages appear more fair and manageable.

Not every Mario game needs to be set in the Mushroom Kingdom; Super Mario World was in Dinosaur Land and Super Mario Galaxy in outer space. The sun-drenched setting and tropical tunes of Super Mario Sunshine are an intrinsic part of its charm, meaning it easily earned a place in our recent Summer Sizzlers feature. The graphics glisten and the inclusion of progressive scan is welcome, as it showcases visual variety through golden beaches, a bustling amusement park and clear water bay areas to give you a subtle feeling of taking a holiday in a video game. Shigeru Miyamoto praised the game’s water effects and you will likely find the gentle ripples of its bay waters, as well as calm clear lakes, inviting. Similarly, diving deep down to clean an eel’s teeth is fun.

It looks and feels refreshing, so doesn’t need a slippery ice or dusty desert world to justify itself as a platformer. Super Mario Sunshine may have classic Mario characters missing from its roster, but by introducing Isle Delfino residents like the Pianta and Noki it creates its own style. It still includes enough of a sprinkling of Cheep-Cheeps and Boo ghosts to feel like a Mario game, plus bathing a Chain Chomp, surfing on Bloopers and battling Petey Piranha feel fitting in the Mario universe. Controlling Yoshi is a welcome addition, even if it’s not as fun as in Super Mario Galaxy 2, while learning how he spits different fruit juice to change the direction of fishy-platforms is a unique puzzle mechanic. The final Bowser showdown may be more of a battle with a hot tub, but it is an exciting set-piece, as is blasting Mecha-Bowser while riding a rollercoaster. The episode in which ‘The Sand Bird is Born’, including its calm ethereal music, is a great example of how the areas located in Isle Delfino have a style and atmosphere all of their own.

Some gamers consider Super Mario Sunshine to be a disappointment in relation to the benchmark set by the rest of the Mario series, in a similar way to how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Godfather Part III are often viewed in regard to the quality set by their respective film franchises. However, this does Super Mario Sunshine a disservice and doesn’t take into account that its release was sandwiched between two of the most outstanding console Mario games created. The transition from 16-bit 2D graphics to exploring Super Mario 64’s 3D worlds, lovingly scattered around Princess Peach's Castle, was so impactful that it’s understandable when Nintendo struggled to match the expectations of a follow-up to their N64 masterpiece. The craftsmanship and pure creative wonder in Super Mario Galaxy was so joyous, Nintendo was wise to fine-tune its winning formula in Super Mario Galaxy 2.

It’s one thing to argue that Super Mario Sunshine didn’t have the impact of Super Mario 64, or that it is not as tightly crafted as Super Mario Galaxy, but to declare it unworthy of the entire Mario franchise is dramatic and undersells a brilliant video game. It’s a reaction that can arguably be similarly applied to Super Mario Bros. 2, which followed the success of Super Mario Bros. and preceded the refinement of Super Mario Bros. 3. The quirkiness of a title adapted from Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was unlikely to have the same universal appeal, just as a central gameplay mechanic utilising a hovering backpack was unconventional for a genre that revolves around jumping on platforms. However, it’s beneficial for each Mario title to embrace its own style and Super Mario Sunshine has forged its own sense of identity.

As far as video game critics are concerned when reviewing it ten years ago, Super Mario Sunshine received positive reviews and holds an excellent Metacritic score of 92 today, as a result of 61 reviews, which is significant coverage for an older game’s aggregate Metascore. This includes top-mark scores from Nintendo Power, GamePro and Computer and Video Games (CVG). It’s also worth noting that Super Mario Sunshine was praised by retro magazines that are not included in the Metascore, for example the two UK GameCube-centric magazines at the time, NGC Issue 73 and CUBE No.10, scored it highly as 96/100 and 9.6/10 respectively. It could be argued that a magazine with a focus on GameCube is more likely to celebrate an anticipated first-party exclusive, but multi-format magazines also applauded it, like the 10/10 review in Issue 251 of CVG. A ‘Nine out of ten’ rating in Issue 114 of EDGE also emphatically stated that Super Mario Sunshine was “the second best platform game of all time”, second only to Super Mario 64 in September 2002.

Nintendo Life awarded a 9/10 in our Super Mario Sunshine retro review and it made it into the Top 10 of our favourite Super Mario Games, demonstrating that it’s not just on its 10 year anniversary that we acknowledge Super Mario Sunshine as an excellent game.

What do you think of Super Mario Sunshine, and how does it rate in the Super Mario series?

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